Deeper Implications of Affirmative Action: Women in the Workplace

by Haniya Khalid

Far too many times during my fairly young career have I been told “You’re a female in the Middle East… what do you have to worry about? You check off all the boxes.” Most times I don’t say anything: partly because it is too deep a matter to explain with a single retort, and partly because in a sense, they are not wrong.

I do check off a lot of boxes. During my engineering studies, I was assigned to a team for my senior design project. I was amused to see the group I was randomly selected to join: a female American- Mexican engineer, a female American- Colombian engineer, and myself—a non-native female Pakistani engineer. Many jokes were made (by us!) in the vain of how we were a perfect 8 x 10 glossy—front-page worthy of the admissions catalog. We were the epitome of diversity with our unplanned but nonetheless charming heritage, juxtaposed so adorably with our intense discussions of valves and flowmeters.

It is a debate that has been ongoing for years: does affirmative action disregard unequivocally merit-based selection? In order to conclude a workplace decorum from an area that is intrinsically complex both in definition and application, it is important to look at both the history and the meaning of affirmative action.

“Affirmative action” means positive steps taken to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment, education, and culture from which they have been historically excluded. When those steps involve preferential selection—selection on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity—affirmative action generates intense controversy [1].

An approach deployed to shed a more objective light on a topic susceptible to controversy is by viewing things in a bigger picture instead of viewing the selection process as an isolated incident. Those favoring preferential selection argue that the female “preferred candidate” has either already suffered from, or will inevitably suffer from some kind of discrimination—the very disadvantages she can potentially face is the very reason she is given preference to begin with. Equally, if a male candidate misses out on such an opportunity, the odds will be in his favor in most aspects of discrimination, be it work or otherwise. It’s tricky, however, because both these hypotheses are difficult to quantify.

If one argues “You cannot fix discrimination with discrimination”, then it should be reconciled that you cannot use the same word — discrimination — to describe two very different things. Job discrimination is grounded in prejudice and exclusion, whereas affirmative action is an effort to overcome prejudicial treatment through inclusion [2].

Therefore, while preferential selection that takes into consideration a variety of factors may not be a perfectly robust solution to deep-rooted social issues, studies continually illustrate that it is a practice that does indeed discourage prejudice and its consequently long-lasting effects.

Looks like a rewarding endeavor to me—even if I am not the one benefiting from it.

[1] Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Affirmative Action

[2] Journal of Social Issues (volume 52, pages 25-31)